Why it’s so difficult to kill a populist movement

But why do so many citizens give populists a second chance, even when their flaws are well-known? One answer has to do with the depth of disenchantment with democratic institutions that usually precedes the populists. Since some populists experience a meteoric rise, breaking onto the political scene suddenly, it is tempting to think of the causes of their success as ephemeral. Yet populists in virtually every country have exploited deep social divisions (such as fears about immigration in Europe) and long-standing economic frustrations (such as the vast differences in prosperity between town and country in Thailand). Since these underlying causes are rarely remedied after populists are deposed, it’s not surprising that the same kind of politics can live on.

Another answer has to do with the way populists destroy the most basic rules and norms of the political system. Leaders’ willingness to signal that their adversaries are legitimate participants in the system, and to respect the sanctity of institutions instead of pressing their partisan advantage to the limit, is largely dependent on the premise that voters would punish them for such transgressions. Italians before Berlusconi and Americans before 2015 assumed that a candidate who attacked the independent judiciary or called for his opponent to be jailed could never garner mass support. Once a ruthless and talented political leader demonstrates that this assumption is mistaken, it becomes more tempting for future politicians to break norms with abandon.